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Vol. 13, No. 2, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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City of God
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Maria Full of Grace
Man Without a Past
In This World
Buffalo Boy
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Born into Brothels
The Edukators
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Sisters In Law
Send a Bullet
Banking on Heaven
Chinese Botanist's Daugher
Ben X
La Zona
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Irina Palm
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Poor Boys Game
Finn's Girl
Leaving the Fold
The Mourning Forest
Beneath the Rooftops of Paris
Before Tomorrow
Paraiso Travel
Necessities of Life
For a Moment of Freedom
Blood River
By the Will of Genghis Kahn
The Concert
Weaving Girl
Into Eternity
When We Leave
Le Havre
Presumed Guilty
A Separation
Take This Waltz
Beyond The Walls
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Past

hany abu-assad's


reviewed by


Max Weiss is Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor and assistant professor of history and Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. He is the author of In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi?ism and the Making of Modern Lebanon (Harvard University Press, 2010), and he has published several translations from the Arabic, including Hassouna Mosbahi, A Tunisian Tale (American University in Cairo Press, 2011), Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (London: Haus, 2012) and Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar (London: Pushkin Press, 2013).

The first time I watched Omar, the latest Oscar-nominated work by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, I nearly leapt out of my seat as it careened toward the climax, unable to recall the last time a film elicited such a visceral response from me.

At the most basic level, Omar is a political thriller that follows the inexorable unraveling of three Palestinian friends -- Omar, Tarek and Amjad -- who struggle to maintain their lives, humour and friendship against terrible odds. Omar and Amjad are both in love with Nadia, who happens to be Tarek’s younger sister, and this broken love triangle will ultimately lead to the downfall of all four. But Omar is first and foremost a searing meditation on the pressures and damage inflicted on Palestinian life by Israeli occupation. After the three friends conspire to, and Amjad actually does, kill an Israeli soldier inside his own barracks, their lives and those of their loved ones are sucked into a maelstrom in which friends and enemies are no longer so easy to distinguish.

The broader Palestinian condition of apparent impossibility and utter undecidability becomes a central theme. Family relationships are shattered, jilted love stories become the norm, and friendships are ripped apart by paranoia and the manipulation of Israeli spy networks. The ever-intensifying pressure cooker of everyday life under occupation ties Palestinian social and affective life into knots -- knots that can only be cut by self-effacing violence (think of the suicide bomber, for example, transmuted here into a collaborator who ultimately self-destructs). The wreckage left behind includes dead friends, paranoid relatives, women without husbands or with children of unknown parentage, and dashed hopes.

There is no exit from the brutality and insidious distortion of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now approaching its forty-seventh year. What hope remains is to destroy the circuit of intrigue and counter-intrigue. Many commentators, both Israeli and Palestinian, view the issue of collaboration through a charged ideological, but largely impersonal, lens. Omar, by contrast, anatomizes the occupation regime’s dark intimacy, exploring how lifelong friendships, family relationships and even the love of your life can become monstrous, while the relationship between interrogator and prisoner in the Israeli torture chamber can morph into a shocking degree of closeness. The first time the protagonist is strung up by his wrists and beaten savagely in detention, his face is smashed, his nose pulverized. And yet, through the blood, pus and vomit, Omar musters the whispered advice to his captor, “Wipe your nose.” Whether Omar is trying to humiliate his interrogator or to save him from humiliation, whether this is gratuitous defiance or a cynical tactic of avoidance seems irrelevant. To maintain such poise under these circumstances is a pointed and compelling assertion of their common humanity. In response, Omar is subjected to a cigarette lighter to his genitals.

But the relationship between resistance and Palestinian politics is complicated. How can the Palestinian people most effectively combat Israel’s overwhelming military strength? Through speech, as when Omar talks back to three Israeli soldiers who are harassing and humiliating him? Through stone throwing, to which the children of the refugee camp resort as the undercover forces chase him through the alleyways? Through guerrilla warfare, as when the three old friends train for and then engage in armed struggle? As this nightmarish noir descends into deeper levels of uncertainty, the web of deception turns ever more opaque. The personal relationship that Omar develops with the secret agent, Rami, a fluent Arabic-speaking Israeli handler, becomes the key to his escape.

Both favourable and critical reviews of the film have stressed the political agenda that the filmmaker brings to his craft; some have approved, grudgingly or otherwise, of the humanization of the avatars of occupation, Rami in particular. But such a move to reduce the Palestinian condition to politics, or to the need for dialogue and empathy, obliterates the incessant violence of the bureaucratic and military machinery of occupation. This system has produced the contradictory social and affective effects that Lori Allen so evocatively terms, “the multiple powers of cynicism in politics and the possibilities of solidarity and, yes, the resistance to oppressive forces that are contained therein.” I cannot think of a more profound representation of the politics of cynicism in Palestine, and its potential overcoming, as that found in Omar.



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